A foreign affair: Geist resident traveled to Vietnam for USO, performs at recent ceremony

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Geist resident Bonnie Hinkle served during the Vietnam War but not in the traditional sense.

Hinkle played in an all-girl band called The Shy Ones in 1968 during an audition for a United Service Organizations show. Hinkle and her sister auditioned and were selected for the band.

Founded in 1941, the USO is a nonprofit that provides live entertainment to members of the U.S. Armed Forces.

“We auditioned with an agent out of Chicago and got the job to go to Vietnam and Southeast Asia, wherever military installments were, to perform,” Hinkle said.

The tour started in the fall of 1970 in Vietnam, and Hinkle and her sister Robyn McDowell performed there for four months. When their plane first landed in Vietnam, Hinkle said she was fearful of performing in the war-torn nation.

“It was real scary. When we first got there we said, ‘Oh, my gosh, what a mistake.’ I was 22, and she was 20, and when we landed at Saigon, we didn’t get off the plane,” Hinkle said. “At that time, the stewardesses said we had to get off, and we were too scared. They talked us into getting off the plane, and we took a cab to a hotel in Saigon. It was another world.”

Hinkle and her sister performed a show called “Showtime USA” at military installations. She said the entertainment helped boost the soldiers’ morale. 

When the fear faded, Hinkle said the experience was amazing.

“We connected so well with everyone there, and it became home,” Hinkle said. “Once we started performing, we really knew we were there doing such a good job for these guys. The morale was pretty low, and we helped them escape what was going on, and they just loved the entertainment. That’s why we stayed longer there.”

Hinkle and McDowell stayed in Vietnam for four months before continuing their tour in other parts of Southeast Asia and then returning to the U.S. They traveled again to Vietnam for three months in 1971.

After their overseas experience, the sisters started a band with a trio of men called Five Easy Pieces. Hinkle has spoken at various events at North Central and Lawrence Central schools about her time in Vietnam, but a new opportunity to share her experiences arose June 2.

The City of Lawrence hosted The Moving Wall, a half-scale replica of the Vietnam Veterans Memorial in Washington, D.C., from May 31 to June 4. A ceremony honoring Vietnam veterans was held at the wall June 2, and Hinkle performed “God Bless America.”

Chris Barnthouse, a life member for the Vietnam Veterans Association 295 and a Vietnam-era veteran who enlisted in 1972, and the publicity chair for The Moving Wall, heard about Hinkle from Wallace Vaughn, who served as a combat medic in Vietnam. Wallace suggested Barnthouse reach out to Hinkle to performance.

“I contacted Bonnie, and she sent me an audition tape, which let me know we really wanted to use her in some way. But when I called her and got her whole story, I knew this was going to be something very special,” Barnthouse said. “And she didn’t disappoint. Bonnie is a true entertainer who knows how to get her audience involved. When she got everyone on their feet to sing ‘God Bless America,’ I know a lot of the vets were having flashbacks to seeing entertainers like her bring them a little bit of home while they were in Vietnam.”

Hinkle said performing at the event was truly moving.

“I was honored to be part of that, and I was happy somebody reached out to me and asked me to do it,” she said.

About Five Easy Pieces

Five Easy Pieces, the band Hinkle and her sister formed upon their return from Vietnam, still performs today. Robyn McDowell, Hinkle’s sister, left the band after two years, but Hinkle still sings. Since McDowell’s exit, there have been 10 other women in the band.

In 1979, Hinkle married the band’s keyboard player, Charlie Hinkle.

For more, visit fiveeasypiecesband.com.

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